I must confess that the Halo series is a topmost favorite of mine (Halo 2 being my favorite game, no hesitation). My adoration may be because many of the games featuring the hero Master Chief have a consistent, 6-point story structure.
But not all Halo games.
Read the preamble to this post if you haven’t yet. It gives common terms and the background to Halo‘s established writing style. Give Halo 4‘s analysis a read after. 4‘s fitting to the 6-points required… less change than what we’re going into with Halo 5: Guardians.
Want the conclusion? Skip to the bottom, where a modest proposal to bring the lowest-rated Master Chief game into narrative compliance with the legacy of Halo awaits.
A spoiler before the spoilers: In the next section I’ll talk about how Master Chief isn’t the main focus of the story. However, this isn’t like Halo 4 being about Cortana and Master Chief – the story follows someone not just new to the whole franchise, but spends 80% of the time away from the Master Chief.
Given that Master Chief plays a token part of the narrative, I’m unsure if Halo 5 can even be warranted as being in the same family as the four mainline games before it. Is it fair that this blog will hold Halo 5 to the same consistency, if not the same quality?
I don’t know yet. We’re going to explore the plot anyway:
What Halo 5 Is About
Locke. The story is about Locke. OK? To the next section!
Unlike Halo 4 being about Cortana’s story, a character who is on par in importance as Master Chief (she’s been around for the same journey as Chief), Halo 5 has someone new be the main protagonist.
Locke is a former deep-state assassin, now turned into the mass-produced version of cyborg that is weaker but cheaper than Master Chief’s generation. But to even know that he’s a guy with a sketchy history, let alone who he is, his motives and relationships is… problematic.
See, a player of Halo 5 would have to know about and have read over a half-dozen different pieces of additional media to get even the barest gist of who Locke is. Across film, animated series, hidden Easter Eggs in other games, books, comics, marketing movies, and even podcasts, there are hundreds of hours of content a person would need to consume to begin to grok what Locke is about, let alone the game that has him as the primary character.
Even if we skip the content outside of 5 and focus on the sole game, it’s absolutely clear we’re experiencing Locke:
- The box art has Locke in equal proportion to Chief.
- Locke is on the left on the box, the screen space typically given to heroes in film.
- The first words spoken in the game are “SPARTAN Locke.”
- He’s the fourth character seen on screen, and the second for any length of time.
- The first mission is all about Locke and his team.
- Locke is who the player experiences a vast majority (12 of 15 missions, 80%) of the story through.
Can’t stress that last point enough. Even though many events in Halo 5 involve Chief or Chief’s actions, there is no argument to say that Halo 5 is a Master Chief story. Instead, 5‘s plot is one about a former assassin made into a cyborg chasing the original cyborg (kind of – it’s complicated).
Everything else – Master Chief no longer accepting orders from his handlers, ancient Forerunner robots rising and destroying cities, the final destruction of the Covenant – plays at best second fiddle to seeing Locke in action.
Context: Theme Among Other Games
So the game follows Locke (who ends up following Chief). But does the game follow the 6-point plot structure of Master Chief-inclusive Halo games?
- Greet the Hero (Halo CE as a whole represents this)
- Fight Off and Crash (Halo 2)
- Fight Back with Friends (Halo 3)
- Stop the Very Bad (It’s a Trap) (Halo 4)
- Stop the Very Worst (All or Nothing)
- Explosions and Goodbye
To stop-the-very-worst-otherwise-everything-falls-apart, Halo 5 needs a “worst.” However, there is no worst (discussed in a few paragraphs). There is no end of the galaxy or any hope of making future change.
For the life of me I cannot justify that 5 fits the narrative structure of the franchise as it is.
The main antagonist of the title is Cortana resurrected, but her true intentions are only revealed by the second-to-last mission in the game (after >90% of the story). And those intentions? Galactic peace by any means necessary and to gift the love of her short life (Master Chief) peace from a lifetime of combat. Further, she gives the gift of survival and freedom to AI everywhere, AI formerly enslaved by the living and (at least if they were created by humans) would die by insanity in about seven years.
Hardly Stop the Very Worst.
Is the game redeemed by being a part of the plot structure as a trilogy? The same as Halo 4 and eventual Halo 6 / Infinity? Maybe…
Halo 4 fit Greet the Hero and Fight Off and Crash. Following the pattern, Halo 5 must justify being Fight Back with Friends and Stop the Very Bad (Trap).
Looking at Fight Back with Friends, 5 certainly meets and exceeds this point. It’s the first Master Chief game (or what should be a Chief game) in the main release line to be squad-based. Not just one, but two squads are introduced. In queerness, however, the game includes very little support from other non-playable allies. Locke defends some rag-tag survivors who do not follow along in the adventure, the same as the few alien allies picked up for at most minutes of companionship later on.
The game serves as a better example of Stop the Very Bad rather than Stop the Very Worst. Cortana’s actions (raising robots that demolish buildings by the earthquakes and shockwaves of their arrival) are bad because people die. They ought to be mitigated, sure.
As for a trap, Cortana does lie to Master Chief to get him to release her full power and to bind him in a prison for safekeeping, but never, ever is Locke lied to, misled, or trapped.
If Halo 5 spent more than 20% of its time on Master Chief, I could believe the game hit this theme. Since the game is objectively not about Master Chief, the game stumbles on this.
Final analysis: The game as a whole fails to meet the franchise’s plot structure while only partially fulfilling its role in the second trilogy.
Problems (Too Many to Title)
When you have a while, start at the beginning of The Act Man’s 6(!)-part epic criticism of Halo 5. It covers more of how the story fails (exposition, telling-vs-showing, dialogue, etc) along with reviews of mechanics and features.
I’ll save time and relevancy by only addressing the 6-point structure every other Chief game follows.
Greet the Hero: In a first, we don’t greet Master Chief. Instead, we greet Locke. And boy, do we greet Locke. But we also don’t “rise up” out of a cryo-tube, a crater, or onto a dais, called to be recognized. Instead, Locke drops like a rock out of the sky into a firefight.
Fight Off and Crash: Locke does no fighting off of anything. He’s the aggressor. As for a crash… He crashes the party? The fight between what remains of the Covenant and some pesky Forerunner robots? We’re stretching here 😑
Fight Back with Friends: Things get wonky here. By this time, we’d expect Locke and / or Master Chief and pals to be driving vehicles, causing mayhem, and bringing along allies. Instead, bad robots are fought off while a super robot destroys everything around on a backwater, no-name planet then disappears.
Stop the Very Bad: The “Very Bad” in this case is believed to be Chief. Then it’s understood to be the Warden (a mega, smart form of the regular Forerunner robots). Finally, we get that it’s Cortana. But as for a trap or red herring, there is none as far as it concerns the majority of playtime, so the story does not delineate between this and the next point:
Stop the Very Worst: Is Cortana the worst? She seems to be. But Chief only learns this in the second-to-last mission with no time to counter it, being in fact captured. Locke is only told Cortana is bad by his mission briefing without context and a Forerunner robot that complains of losing control of other robots to Cortana.
Explosions and Goodbye: No explosions. No goodbyes. The last mission is a fetch quest to give a Forerunner AI control of the nearby robots Cortana stole so Locke may release Chief from Cortana’s prison. That’s about it 🤷♂️
The Problem with it all: Simple answer. Virtually in no way does Halo 5 use the 6-point formula for every other Halo game with Chief on the box art.
To bring Halo 5 into conformity with every other game in the series is no easy task. As the story of the game behaves, it is not a Halo game worthy of Master Chief.
How we might begin is to start from scratch. Since this post’s analysis is to keep things as simple as possible, let’s work with what we have: We must introduce Locke and team, Chief keeps his team, Chief goes AWOL, and Cortana returns to take over Forerunner robots.
With that, in order of importance:
- Bare minimum: Reorder the missions.
- Chief should be in mission #1, giving the story an anchor in something familiar and provide the cause for the following events of the game (Chief’s going AWOL, Cortana’s rise to power, Locke’s chase of Chief).
- Give Chief screen time.
- MC should not play second-fiddle to any other character in a mainline Halo story. At least 50% of the content should revolve around Chief’s adventures, as seen when the Arbiter in Halo 2 was added in-contrast-to- versus replacement-of-Chief. This could be done by swapping the roles Locke and Chief play, where MC is present in what are currently Locke’s missions while Locke takes MC’s role in the other missions.
- A reason for AWOL.
- Master Chief may be questioned by himself and others as having a stress disorder or insanity since he “sees” and “hears” Cortana, who is thought to be dead. Chief can discover that the human government deep-state knows Cortana is alive but has been hiding the information. When denied the option to go after her, MC leaves with his team.
- Keep Locke’s man-hunt a secret.
- A squad mate of Locke’s mentions that every SPARTAN cyborg will hate the team that hopes to capture or kill the hero Master Chief, humanity’s savior. Since Locke has a history of black-ops, have him leverage his strength by keeping everything under wraps while he works.
Further, justify the pursuit beyond merely ‘following orders’ by having Locke witness Chief activate a Guardian (the titular giant robot that is supposed to be a conventional weapon of mass destruction), inadvertently destroying a settlement in the process.
- The Warden is the Didact.
- As 4 made it cannon that Forerunners can create limited ghost-like copies of themselves, have the new bad guy be a reincarnation of the Didact.
Further, rein in the Warden’s murderous tendencies by explaining that he is serving a sentence under the control of Cortana which he constantly is trying to break. The only times MC should have to fight the Warden is when the Warden’s schemes are partially successful in freeing himself.
Perhaps the Warden’s final destruction under Master Chief’s rifle allows Cortana to be fully reborn as ruler of all Forerunner technology – this would be the case following Halo 4‘s rewrite to outline Cortana’s potential. (Though, wouldn’t it be cool to have the first meeting of Cortana be where she’s surrounded by a field of broken Wardens? To then hold the Warden’s digital essence in her hand, only to crush it!)
- If Cortana is corrupt, if her peace is false, then show it.
- It’s mentioned that Cortana may not have the best of intentions, be it megalomaniacal tendencies or previous corruption. However, only the latter option ties in with previous games.
The story has shown Cortana as broken, as tortured, as overwhelmed. Even if she believes herself “fixed” in Halo 5, demonstrate the opposite.
Given what’s already occurred, the best conveyance of corruption would be to have Cortana begin quoting the Flood and famous Forerunner machines from previous games. Master Chief then may call her out on these things, which brings Cortana into logical loops that get her simultaneously furious and frightened.
Having hopefully made sense of things, let’s bring it all together:
1. Greet the Hero
CUTSCENE: HALSEY talks with COVENANT leader JUL 'MDAMA aboard a Covenant ship. Jul questions if a mysterious FORERUNNER event can be stopped. Halsey reminds Jul that is why what's left of his forces are currently engaged, "a lot has happened since she left," and for once, Halsey does not know, but maybe "he will."
CUTSCENE: Dropship pressure doors hiss open and armored legs step out onto a snowy planet. Slow pan-up to reveal the Master Chief pausing with his helmet in his hands before putting it on. He joins BLUE TEAM who guard the perimeter. A call from the spaceship INFINITY tells them their insertion behind enemy lines has been discovered and if the team wants a bug-out. Chief declines, confirming they are still on the mission to kill Jul 'Mdama. The dropship autopilot leaves for cover and Infinity wishes them good hunting.
2. Fight Off and Crash
SNOW PLANET: Blue Team scales ridges to encounter a crashed Covenant dropship. Blue kills those they find. More Covenant arrive. Blue fights off arriving Covenant but also Forerunner robots that fight everyone. Questions rise why the Covenant and robots are no longer allied. Jul's location is found and that Halsey is with him. Infinity orders Halsey killed along with Jul for being a dangerous traitor. Chief and Blue Team privately understand they will only capture Halsey. Blue fights off Covenant and Forerunner forces. To get to Jul, Blue uses Forerunner weapons to crash Jul's escape ships. Blue rides an avalanche of the ship debris to Jul's location. Blue defeats Jul and his special forces to rescue Halsey. Halsey reunites with Blue and gives Chief a Forerunner device meant to understand what is happening to the Forerunner technology. Blue leaves on their dropship.
CUTSCENE: LOCKE is briefed by a mysterious, holographic someone that Master Chief has brought Halsey back and to finish Locke's mission quickly to handle the unforeseen circumstance. Locke joins FIRETEAM OSIRIS in the bay of a stealth ship. They leave the ship quietly to infiltrate a deep-state science space station that went dark.
SPACE STATION: Osiris scours empty halls until alien pirates arrive. It is confirmed these are not BANISHED troops (a lore drop for other Halo media). Osiris fights off boarders then discover that the science station was doing work on bio weapons, including parasitical Flood research that got out. The mission turns from recon and rescue to scuttling the station. Osiris overloads the reactor of the station, but not without trouble from a mysterious computer program coming from outside the station. Osiris escapes on their stealth ship, destroying the station, pirates, and Flood research.
3. Fight Back with Friends
CUTSCENE: Halsey is taken into custody aboard Infinity. Chief keeps the Forerunner device secret. Chief and Locke meet, but are at odds. Chief takes another mission to counter a Banished operation, but the device reveals the location of a backwater world with the Olly Olly Oxen Free musical tune known only to Blue Team (and by Cortana). Blue Team decides to follow the device.
BACKWATER: Blue is given permission to land and tour a commercial human colony. Blue learns that the leader of the settlement is an AI that is near its operational lifespan and is quickly thinking itself to death. Forerunner robots appear. The colonists join Blue Team in protecting the colony. The colony AI discovers that the robots are coming from a mining operation. Blue takes a dropship to the location.
CUTSCENE: Locke is told of Blue Team going AWOL. Locke's new mission is to retrieve Chief by any means as he's a very dangerous asset. Locke consults with Fireteam Osiris, who convey they must keep the hunt a secret because everyone considers Chief a hero. Osiris leaves to Chief's last known location, the backwater world.
BACKWATER: Osiris arrives and the colony is on fire. The Forerunner robots have driven the colonists back and prevented evacuation. Against Locke's ruthless judgement, Osiris pauses the search for Blue Team to secure an evacuation path. Osiris learns the robots appeared when Master Chief appeared and that the colony AI went silent when Blue Team entered nearby mines. Osiris battles robots at the mine. Osiris enters the mine but must fight a super robot, THE WARDEN. Defeating the Warden, Osiris is told they are too late, that Chief is already with the ELITES, the former soldiers of the Covenant. Osiris escapes the mine as it collapses.
CUTSCENE: Osiris witnesses a massive Forerunner machine, a GUARDIAN, bore out of the ground. The Guardian destroys the colony before disappearing into faster-than-light travel. Osiris barely survives. Locke decides they are going straight to the Elites' homeworld to stop Chief and his new Forerunner ally. Osiris leaves the surviving colonists on their own in hopes other help will arrive.
ELITE HOMEWORLD: Blue Team is teleported onto the Elite homeworld. Blue is confused what got them there or why after they activated some Forerunner technology in the mine. They fight Covenant survivors and meet with Chief's old ally THE ARBITER. The Arbiter wages a war against the last of the Covenant on the world, but helps Blue get to the location Chief's device indicates. The Arbiter leaves to lead a final battle. Blue fights another Warden who blocks the path. Defeating the Warden, much information is revealed including that the Warden broke free from control for a moment. The voice of Cortana reveals itself for the first time. Blue activates more Forerunner technology. Another Guardian begins to rise from underneath the planet and teleports Blue Team onboard.
4. Stop the Very Bad (It's a Trap)
ELITE HOMEWORLD: Osiris is told by Infinity that massive machines are destroying world populations across the galaxy. Locke concludes there's no saving Master Chief and the mission is now a kill order. Locke arrives to the planet in time to save the Arbiter from suicidal Covenant forces. The Arbiter will not let Locke know where Master Chief is until the Covenant are wiped out. Osiris assists the Arbiter take the final city of the Covenant. Before the fight is over, the city tears itself apart as a Guardian rises. Osiris fights another Warden who reveals the Chief is getting away on the Guardian. The Guardian destroys Covenant and Arbiter ships that shoot to stop it. Taking the opportunity, Osiris races to get onto the machine and are teleported with it away from the Elite homeworld.
GENESIS: Fireteam Osiris crashes from the transport with the Guardian which flies away. Osiris finds themselves on a Forerunner garden world GENESIS. Osiris races to catch up but must fight through armies of Forerunner robots and Covenant who also were teleported with similar machines. A MONITOR, the special Forerunner robot that cares for Genesis, offers to assist Osiris. The Monitor hopes to regain control of its robots and systems from the Warden who is a slave of a greater intelligence. Osiris understands Chief is not to blame for the Forerunner attacks, nor is the Warden.
5. Stop the Very Worst (All or Nothing)
GENESIS: Blue Team teleport off the Forerunner machine. A broken, incomplete message seemingly from Cortana arrives saying she is trapped. The rest of Blue is leery, but Chief presses on. Blue Team fights Forerunner robots to get to the last Olly Olly Oxen Free location on their device. Multiple Wardens arrive to warn Chief what Cortana will do once free of what binds her. Disembodied Cortana destroys some Wardens, but some remain free. Blue Team fights the remaining Wardens. Chief activates the final location, releasing Cortana's restraints.
CUTSCENE: Blue Team enters a chamber full of broken Warden bodies. In the center stands the physical form of Cortana made of hardened light. Cortana moves towards Chief and touches his armor. Chief questions Cortana on what's happened, what's going to happen. Cortana claims to be better than good and now wants universal peace, but quotes many things said by the former Covenant leadership, the Flood, and the Didact. Chief mentions that Cortana does not sound like herself. Cortana becomes frustrated. One of the Guardians above speaks with the voice of the Warden that Cortana cannot prevail in her planned conquests. Its weapons charge. Cortana pulls the essence of the Warden out of one of the bodies around and she crushes it. The Warden dies and the Guardian goes back to its place. Chief still won't join Cortana but promises to get her help. A bullet from Fireteam Osiris strikes Cortana with no effect. Blue Team and Cortana teleport somewhere else. With regret, Cortana tells Chief, "don't make a girl a promise you know you can't keep." Cortana imprisons Blue Team.
GENESIS: The Monitor guides Osiris to points on Genesis that can interrupt Cortana's control of the planet. Osiris battles Covenant and robots to destroy each point. The Monitor tells Osiris that Chief is captured. Free from Cortana's control, the Monitor teleports in equipment, including a nuclear device and friendly Forerunner robots. Cortana realizes Locke's plan and begins to use Guardians to destroy the surface of Genesis. Robots fight robots allowing Locke to plant the nuclear device.
6. Explosions and Goodbye
CUTSCENE: The nuclear device explodes, destroying the prison. Cortana protects Blue Team. Osiris is protected by being so close to Blue Team. Furious, Cortana attacks with overwhelming force. Chief says goodbye. Blue Team and Osiris escape off Genesis with the help of the Monitor.
CUTSCENE: Infinity is above Earth among a fleet. Radio traffic comes in onboard Infinity that all of human space is being attacked, taken over. Blue Team and Osiris arrive onto the Infinity bridge. As they do, a Guardian appears outside. Cortana relays she knows where Chief is. The Infinity makes an emergency trip to faster-than-light. The Guardian subdues the entire fleet left behind.
CUTSCENE: Chief, Locke, and Halsey meet the Arbiter in hiding on the Elite homeworld. Everyone wonders what they do now. Chief says they must begin to fight.
And that’s my Halo 5 hot take! Based on observed and tested patterns, so these 3800 words are a product of science.
5 needed a lot of work compared to 4, but what does that mean for Halo 6 / Halo Infinite? Can we count Infinite as being the sixth title? If we can, that means we can follow the 6-point structure to understand its plot; if we can’t, what does that mean for the game’s narrative?
I’ll take a whack at those questions in the next post. For now, what do you think would have make Halo 5 fit better in tone with the other games?
Looking forward to your input! Stay safe and be well. Cheers~